America’s Youth — Lost Yet Again.

August 13, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Last week, The Atlantic posted this article by Jean Twenge, and some of my Facebook friends linked to it with favorable comments.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)
Just from what you can see in this graphic, I was skeptical.

1. Kids and Trouble. When I see titles like this, I immediately think of “Trouble” from “The Music Man” and “Kids” from “Bye-bye Birdie.” (What can I say – I was raised on LPs of Broadway shows.) I’ve mentioned these in posts going back ten years (here ) and more recently (here).  Apparently, you can get a lot of attention by telling people that the youth of America are going to hell in a handbasket, or in this case, an iHandbasket.

2. Crying wolf. Jean Twenge sounded a similar alarm not all that long ago. Generation Me (2006) and The Narcissism Epidemic (2009).  I noted my doubts about the latter here.

3. Question titles.  Whenever the title of a book or article is phrased as a question, two things are almost certain:
  • The author thinks that the answer to the question is “Yes.”
  • The more accurate answer is “No.”*

I’d like to explore the evidence – it seems that the main source of Twenge’s data is Monitoring the Future, a long-standing survey housed at ICPSR – but it’s complicated. The survey gives different forms to different samples of different age groups (8th graders, 10th graders, 12th graders). And in 2012, the survey changed the way it compiled the surveys. Anyone who knows how to work with MTF, please raise your hand.

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*This is a slight variation on Betteridge's Law

Chasing the Dragon

August 6, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston
Three weeks ago, I posted this photo on my Facebook, adding that apparently KEEPOFF had a solid fan base at the Jersey shore.


A former student (Thomas Springsteen, no relation) commented: “Their early stuff was way better.”

Perfect. It’s what people always say. At least, it seems that way to me. Is there systematic evidence of the earlier-was-better bias? Well, sort of.

Philip Cohen asked people to rate performers twice on a scale of 1 (“terrible”) to 5 (“great”):
  • how good were they in the 70s?
  • how good were they in the 80s?
Here are the results.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Most groups are on the 1970s side of the line of equality. And of those few who were better in the 80s, except for Pat Benatar and perhaps Prince and Michael Jackson, the degree of improvement is small.

Philip’s explanation (here)  is that his respondents are accurate reporters – music really did go downhill in the 80s, along with the whole damn Zeitgeist.

As I look back on these events – Reagan, the Cold War, sell-out music – in the context of what I thought of as my emerging adulthood, they seemed to herald a dark future, in which loss of freedom and individuality, the rise of the machines, and runaway capitalism was reflected in the decline of rock music.


Maybe. But maybe the results in this graph might not be so fixed in the historical moment. My guess is that he would have gotten similar results no matter what dividing point he chose. And not because of some inevitable law of musical entropy. It’s not the music, it’s the audience. The sound of a group or performer when they first becomes popular defines who they are. And that’s what we want to hear. We think: that’s what they sound like, and I really like it.

But what happens after a few years? The group can keep turning out music that sounds pretty much the same. We the fans think: yeah, it still sounds like them. But we don’t get that same thrill we had when we first heard them or saw them in concert.

Or the performers get bored and search out new sounds. They then risk losing their audience. A few can bring their audience along with them in these new explorations,  like Dylan when he went electric or the Beatles with “Sgt. Pepper.” But these, I think, are exceptions.

My guess is that the graph looks the way it does for the same reason that we have oldies stations. We want to hear the songs that made us fans to begin with. Their early stuff was way better.

Directory Assistance

August 4, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

I don’t know why I became briefly obsessed with the 1940 Manhattan phone book when a Facebook friend linked to it yesterday, but I did. Nostalgia perhaps, though I wasn’t living in New York in 1940. I wasn’t living at all. But seeing the exchanges with names instead of numbers (area codes, of course, had not yet been invented) makes it just a little easier to imagine what life in New York was like three quarters of a century ago. 475 tells you nothing; GRamercy 5 evokes a neighborhood.*

I couldn’t find my wife’s family. In 1940 not everyone had a phone. Perhaps they didn’t get theirs (WAdsworth 8) until later.  Then I went looking for other people who might have been living in New York then.

(Click for a larger view.)

You could just pick up the phone and call J.D. Salinger,** who might prefer not to have been bothered, or Coleman Hawkins, who would probably want to go out for a few drinks.

Estee Lauder lived just a few blocks from me, and we shared an exchange – ENdicott 2, (The elegant Endicott Hotel, built in the 1890s, was just a few blocks north.)

You can browse the entire phone book here.

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*  “I know the last part of your number –  6160,” I years ago to a fellow West Sider, “but I can never remember – is it 479 or 749.”
“749,” he said as though it were obvious. “RIverside 9.”
That was decades ago. I still remember.

**   “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you
’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”

Cosmopolitans and Roots

August 3, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston


Why did White House advisor Stephen Miller call CNN reporter Jake Acosta “cosmopolitan”?

At the end of yesterday’s press briefing, Acosta asked about the Trump administration’s new proposals on immigration – reducing the total number of green cards by half and giving preference to people who are more skilled and people who speak English well.
ACOSTA:   The Statue of Liberty has always been a beacon of hope to the world for people to send their people to this country. They're not always going to speak English.. . . Are we just going to bring in people from Great Britain and Australia?

MILLER: I have to say, I am shocked at your statement that you think that only people from Great Britain and Australia would know English. It reveals your cosmopolitan bias to a shocking degree.
Cosmopolitan? Acosta’s question suggests the exact opposite – provinicialism. A worldly and sophisticated person would know that countries in Asia and Africa have English as their national or dominant language and that people all over the world learn English as a second language. Only a rube would think that English proficiency was limited to Great Britain and Australia.

What did Miller mean by cosmopolitan? The question sent me back to the article that put “cosmopolitan” into the sociological lexicon – Alvin Gouldner’s 1957 “Cosmopolitans and Locals.”
 Cosmopolitans:
  • low on loyalty to the employing organization
  • high on commitment to specialized role skills
  • likely to use an outer reference group orientation
Locals:
  • high on loyalty to the employing organization,
  • low on commitment to specialized role skills
  • likely to use an inner reference group orientation.
Gouldner was writing about people in organizations. Miller is concerned with politics. The common element here is loyalty. Miller, along with Steve Bannon, engineered Trump’s “America first” doctrine, and by “cosmopolitans” he seems to mean people who are not putting America first. On immigration, people like Acosta are thinking about what might be good for an uneducated but hard-working Guatemalan, when instead they should be thinking only about what’s good for the US.

The alt-Right has been using cosmopolitan for a while now, and perhaps it was Miller’s familiarity with White nationalist discourse that made the word so available as a put-down of Acosta even though Acosta’s question seemed based on the kind of ignorance about the world that is much respected over on the right.

Like “America first,” “cosmopolitan” has a history of holding hands with anti-Semitism. In Stalin’s Russia, the phrase “rootless cosmopolitan” was a synonym for Jew, and he murdered quite a few of them. In the US today, the antipathy to “cosmopolitan” embodies this same fear of rootlessness and the same dislike of Jews. Here is one Website’s take on yesterday’s press briefing.


The twist here is that Acosta, the alleged cosmopolitan, is not Jewish, but Miller is. (The alt-Right uses the triple parentheses around a name to designate a Jew.) I don’t know how Miller resolves the dissonance other than to claim that he has never had anything to do with White nationalists (a claim that is probably false.  For the anti-Semites, the Website has this:

While not a Jew himself, Acosta is the end result of the education and programming pushed by the Rootless Cosmopolitans wherever they dwell – even Stalin grew wise to them near the end of his life.

Miller would of course understand this, and I think those more dedicated to The Tribe get the reference as well.

So Acosta cosmopolitanism came from being educated by Jews. Second, Miller and other Jews must surely understand the overtones of the term. And fJinally, let’s throw in a good word for Stalin: an anti-Semitic Russian autocrat – what’s not to like?

(Click to enlarge. The rootless cosmopolitan on the right is from a Soviet humor magazine 1949).

UPDATE: Jeff Greenfield says something similar and more at Politico. ( “It’s a way of branding people or movements that are unmoored to the traditions and beliefs of a nation, and identify more with like-minded people regardless of their nationality.”) (I met Greefield once long ago at a party, back before he was on CBS, ABC, CNN, back when he did a morning show once a week on WBAI.)

Lucky Gunners

August 2, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

There it was again – the false equivalency of guns and cars. It’s sort of like a riddle: Why is a Honda Civic like 6,000 rounds of ammunition? Answer: because both can be used to kill people. It must then follow, so goes the logic, that they are alike in many other ways.

Today’s logician is Jay Caruso, managing editor of Red State, writing in the National Review (here) about a lawsuit filed by the parents of one of the victims in the Aurora, Colorado theater massacre. With the encouragement of The Brady Campaign, a gun-control group, the parents sued Lucky Gunner, the online company that sold the Aurora shooter his stockpile of ammunition.

Lucky Gunner was no more responsible for the actions of James Holmes than Honda was for the actions of Abdul Razak Ali Artan when he attempted to use his Civic to kill pedestrians at Ohio State University, and it no more deserves punishment.

I don’t know about you, but to me it seems kind of obvious what the difference is between a Honda and 170 pounds of bullets.


It’s the same as the difference between a swimming pool and an AR-15.* Simply put, the purpose of guns and bullets is to kill. If they didn’t kill, nobody would buy them. Car manufacturers and swimming pool manufacturers, by contrast, try to make their products increasingly safer – less able to kill people.

So you have one dealer that sells people things whose purpose is transportatin and another dealer who sells people things whose purpose is killing. Caruso makes this same point in his next sentence.

There are already consumer protections that make gun manufacturers liable in rare cases when their products malfunction. Naturally, they do not apply to misuse.

Misuse it may have been. But the bullets did not malfunction. They did what they were designed to do – kill.

The main point of Caruso’s article is to criticize the Brady Campaign – first, for urging the parents to file a lawsuit they were sure to lose; and second, for not paying the $200,000 in Lucky Gunner’s legal fees that the court assessed the parents.

The reason the lawsuit was a sure loser also reinforces the idea that, as even a child knows, deadly weapons are different from cars. Because the purpose of guns and bullets is to kill, people might think that companies and individuals who sell them to killers have some responsibility for the ensuing deaths. So gunlovers, mostly via the NRA, have successfully gotten legislatures to pass laws absolving these sellers of any responsibility. As Caruso explains,

Phillips’s lawsuit was dismissed under the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which was meant to protect the firearms industry from politically motivated lawsuits in which the plaintiffs claim that gun manufacturers and dealers were responsible for the criminal acts of third parties beyond their control.

Lucky Gunner is indeed lucky to have that kind of near-total immunity.  The  Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act might well go under another name – The Tom Lehrer “Wehrner von Braun” Act.
Once bullets get sold,
Who cares who they slay,
That’s not our department
Thanks to you, NRA.
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* Gun lovers often claim that swimming pools are more dangerous for kids than are guns. Really, they do. See this earlier post.

Bourdieu and Miss France — Respect for Théorie

July 31, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Imagine that a former Miss America some years later becomes a lawyer and eventually the director of the Miss America pageant. Now imagine that in a magazine interview, she says, “I don’t think Goffman’s concept of moral career is quite adequate to my trajectory.” And then, imagine that the magazine uses that as the pull quote in its article about her.

Multiply those small fractional chances, and you wind up with a probability of less than “ain’t gonna happen.”

But in France. . .

(Click on the image for a larger view, but you still won't be able to read it.)


Sylvie Tellier was chosen as Miss France in 2002. She is now director of that contest. I failed to come up with a good analogy for the US – an American sociologist whose name and key vocabulary terms would be recognized by the readers of a general-interest weekly. I chose Goffman faute-de-mieux.

The image tweeted is from Le Journal du Dimanche. The print is too small to read, and the current issue is not yet available online, but the pull quote circled by the person who tweeted this says, “J’ai décidé que la théorie de Bourdieu sur la reproduction sociale ne tomberait pas sur moi.” (Also note that you can now tweeter “WTF”  en français as well.)

Here in the US, there has been much hand-wringing, especially on the left, over the anti-science stance of those on the other side of the cultural divide and their refusal to acknowledge the facts – facts about climate change or evolution or the effects of tax cuts, and so on. But, at least in the French view, Americans across the political spectrum are also suspicious of theory – philosophy and abstract intellectualism – which the French, by contrast treat with far more respect.

There is no people among whom abstract ideas have played a such a great role, whose history is rife with such formidable philosophical tendencies, and where individuals are so oblivious to facts and possessed to such a high degree with a rage for abstraction. [Emile de Montégut, quoted in Sudhir Hazareesingh, How the French Think (2015)]

That was written in 1858. Thirty years earlier, Tocqueville had a contrasting observation about the US.
PHILOSOPHICAL METHOD OF THE AMERICANS

I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States. The Americans have no philosophical school of their own, and they care but little for all the schools into which Europe is divided, the very names of which are scarcely known to them.

More than a century later, journalist Adam Gopnik was struck by this same contrast when was fact-checking an article. His French sources were highly skeptical of the whole enterprise of fact-checking.*

Dubious look; there is More Here Than Meets the Eye. . . .There is a certainty in France that what assumes the guise of transparent positivism, “fact checking,” is in fact a complicated plot of one kind or another, a way of enforcing ideological coherence. That there might really be facts worth checking is an obvious and annoying absurdity; it would be naive to think otherwise.

I was baffled and exasperated by this until it occurred to me that you would get exactly the same incomprehension and suspicion if you told American intellectuals and politicians, post-interview. . . .

“In a couple of weeks a theory checker will be in touch with you.”

Alarmed, suspicious: “A what?”

“You know, a theory checker. Just someone to make sure that all your premises agreed with your conclusions, that there aren’t any obvious errors of logic in your argument, that all your allusions flow together in a coherent stream—that kind of thing.”

. . . A theory checker? What an absurd waste of time, since it’s apparent (to us Americans) that people don’t speak in theories, that the theories they employ change, flexibly, and of necessity, from moment to moment in conversation, that the notion of limiting conversation to a rigid rule of theoretical constancy is an absurd denial of what conversation is. (pp. 95-96)


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* I used much of this same material in this blog post ten years ago.

Uncertainty, Probability, and Q-tips

July 28, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Uncertainty and probability are really hard for people, even undergraduates in statistics classes, to understand. I mean, really understand – grok (do people still say “grok”?).

“The polls were wrong,” our president is fond of saying. “They said Hillary would win.” No. What the polls said is that the probability of Hillary winning was 65% (or whatever). That is, sixty-five percent of the time when we get poll results like these, Hillary will win. And 35% of the time, Trump will win. The result is uncertain.

In most of their reporting of results, the pollsters don’t emphasize or even explain the idea of probability. They hope that the people who read their reports will know what “65% probability” means. But they also know that most people, including political reporters, will reduce the message to, “Hillary’s gonna win.”

Maybe it would help if the pollsters included some boilerplate about probability and uncertainty – you know, down at the bottom of the page where they put the sample size and dates and margin of error. Nah. That probably wouldn’t help. It’s like Q-tips. That’s Ezra Klein’s a wonderful analogy. You can hear it in this clip from his recent conversation with Julia Galef. (The excerpt is four minutes long, but the Q-tips part starts at about 0:45. The rest is context and further explanation.)   



Here’s an approximate transcript:

You know how on the packaging of Q-tips they say, “Please don’t put these in your ear”? And ... the only thing ... people do with them is buy them and then immediately stick them into their ear as far as they possibly can, because that’s what you use a Q-tip for. And the Q-tip company knows this perfectly well.
 
What the political forecasters ... are saying is, “We’re giving you an accurate probabalistic forecast, and what you really need to understand is that this is fundamentally a tool to show you that there is uncertainty in elections. And what everybody is doing – and they know this perfectly well – is running to ... get certainty, to get the one thing that they’re told they’re not supposed to use this for.

We can accept uncertainty and probability in other areas. Last night, ESPN broadcast the final round of the World Series of Poker. With only one card (“the river”) unseen, Ott’s Ace/8 would beat Blumstein’s Ace/2. The only way Blumstein can win is if a deuce turns up on the river. The screen (upper left) shows these three “outs” – the only cards that will help Blumstein. If any of the other 39 cards left in the deck turns up, Ott wins the 128,000,000 in the pot.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

As ESPN showed, Ott’s probability of winning the hand is 93%. Blumstein has only a 7% chance. Most viewers – and certainly most poker players – knew what ESPN meant. ESPN was not saying “Ott’s gonna win.” It was saying that if the hand were played from this point 100 times, Blumstein would lose 93 times. But he would win 7 times. Seven times in hundred, he’d get the deuce.

You can guess what happened.


Blumstein got his deuce and won the tournament.

Nobody said, “ESPN got it wrong. Fake percentages. Never believe ESPN.”

We understand that poker is about uncertainty and probability. But we find it much harder to think this way about human behavior – voting for example. Suppose pollsters remind us that their polls show only probability.  “We told you that tf the election were run 100 times, Hillary would lose 35 times.” My reaction is, “That’s ridiculous. The same people would vote the same way, so she’d lose every time. Voters are not cards – you don’t shuffle them up and then turn over one voter on the river.” 

No. But that’s exactly what polls are – samples of the deck of voters. The results give us probabilities, not predictions. Unfortunately, most of the time, most of us ignore that distinction. And we stick Q-tips in our ears.

Cleaning Up After the Jamboree

July 27, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

How do you apologize for someone else’s bad behavior, especially when that person will not apologize, does not even recognize his own impropriety, and is the president of the United States?

Traditionally the president’s address to the Boy Scouts jamboree is non-political. It stresses the good deeds of the organization and the virtues it espouses.* Trump’s speech, by contrast, was what he usually delivers when he goes off script – attacks on his enemies (Hillary, the media, Obamacare), recountings of his electoral victories, dog whistles shout-outs to White Christians, and stream-of-consciousness irrelevancies.

The kids in the audience loved it. They cheered, chanted, and booed in all the right places.  No surprise there. Trump’s persona, like that of Howard Stern, plays well to the adolescent-boy sensibility. But some of the grown-ups felt uncomfortable with the campaign-rally speech, and the organization received many complaints from Scout parents. 

Apparently, the Scouts were not prepared. It took until today, Thursday (Trump spoke on Monday), for the “chief Scout executive” Michael Surbaugh to issue a statement. Here’s the key paragraph.

I want to extend my sincere apologies to those in our Scouting family who were offended by the political rhetoric that was inserted into the jamboree. That was never our intent. The invitation for the sitting U.S. President to visit the National Jamboree is a long-standing tradition that has been extended to the leader of our nation that has had a Jamboree during his term since 1937. It is in no way an endorsement of any person, party or policies. For years, people have called upon us to take a position on political issues, and we have steadfastly remained non-partisan and refused to comment on political matters. We sincerely regret that politics were inserted into the Scouting program.

The problem is how to apologize for the president without offending him. (The president of the Boy Scouts, Randall Stephenson, is also CEO of AT&T. His company wants to gobble up Time Warner, and the deal needs the approval of the Justice Department. Trump’s remarks about loyalty  – “we could use some more loyalty” – may have caught his attention. Perhaps that’s why the statement came from the chief Scout executive.)

Surbaugh (i.e., his writers) hauled out two familiar rhetorical strategies to downplay Trump’s trampling on the norms of Jamboree speeches. First, rather than say that Trump’s speech was offensive, Surbaugh shifted the spotlight to “those . . . who were offended.” It’s not about Trump, it’s about those sensitive snowflakes who took offense.

Second, it wasn’t even Trump who made the speech, at least not as far as anyone would know from reading that paragraph.** Thanks to the passive voice, Trump disappears from sight. Instead we get “the political rhetoric that was inserted into the jamboree” and “politics were inserted” with no hint of who might have been the insertor-in-chief.

You have to have some sympathy for the Scouts brass. Trump dealt them a bad hand. What else could they have done? They could have claimed that Trump’s speech was not political, just good, clean American fun. It’s the sort of thing you might hear from Republicans in Congress. And after all, the credo does not say that a Scout is honest.

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*
A Scout is ...trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent

Oh well, four out of twelve ain’t bad. Maybe five if you allow that our president can also be helpful, at times, to some people. Of course, if Trump himself were scoring this one, he’d give himself 100%.  At the jamboree he mentioned only one of these virtues – loyalty. He complained  that “we could use some more loyalty,” and since most of the speech was about his political accomplishments, it was pretty clear that he was using the royal “we” and that he was referring to Washington politics and perhaps more specifically to the Attorney General.

** In the entire statement – nearly 500 words – Surbaugh never mentions Trump by name. He refers once to “remarks offered by the President of the United States.” 

Inhumane, Cruel . . . and Self-Righteous

July 22, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

You have probably by now heard about the teenagers in Cocoa, Florida who taunted a drowning man rather than trying to save him or get help. They even made a video of the event.

In the clip, the teens can be heard in the video heckling Dunn as he fights to stay above the water. In between bursts of laughter, one of the kids behind the camera can be heard shouting: "Yeah b---- you shoulda never got in there!" Another says, "Let him drown, what the heck." [NBC ]

Law enforcement is trying to figure out some crime to charge them with. In Florida, there’s no law against letting someone drown.

The police chief says that they were “utterly inhumane and cruel.” And he is hardly alone in that reaction. The kids were young and Black, and they had been smoking weed.

The attitudes of the teenagers had a familiar ring. Six years earlier, also in Florida, several Republican presidential candidates were on stage in Orlando for a debate sponsored by Fox News. It was called “The Tea Party Debate.” The tickets were distributed so as to assure that much of the audience would be Tea Party supporters.

At one point, Wolf Blitzer posed this hypothetical to Rand Paul: if a 30-year old man who has chosen not to buy insurance gets in an accident and will die without medical treatment. “Should we let him die?” Blitzer asks.

Paul starts to say no, but before he can, several people in the audience enthusiastically shout “Yes.”



I don’t recall whether there was a national outcry about the Tea Partiers in the audience being “utterly inhumane and cruel.” Their basic premise is the same as that of the Cocoa teenagers – “You shoulda never got in there” and therefore we have no obligation to save you. And both groups of males obviously enjoy the idea of letting the man die. But the older White men of the Tea Party seem to have something the boys lack – moral self-righteousness.

It was the same moral self-righteousness that inspired Republicans just a few days earlier when Brian Williams was asking Rick Perry, governor of Texas, about the 234 executions he had signed off on. When Williams mentioned that number, the crowd interrupted the question with cheers and applause. (A blog post with a video clip is here.)

So far, no Tea Party or Freedom Caucus spokesperson has issued an official statement about the Florida teenagers. It’s a tough call, I guess.

Giant Steps - by Jerome Kern

July 17, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

John Coltrane died fifty years ago today. (The rest of this post is a bit technical. My apologies.)

The “Giant Steps” album of 1959 was a turning point in jazz. The title tune represented a new idea in chord sequences.  “What are those chords, man?” everyone seemed to be asking.  “B D G Bb Eb - how do you play through that?” Even the great Tommy Flanagan, the pianist on the “Giant Steps” date, seems to be struggling with the changes.

As Wikipedia says, “The ‘Giant Steps’ cycle is the culmination of Coltrane's theories applied to a completely new chord progression.”

Instead of the usual progression (C, Am7, Dm7, G7) and its small variations, “Giant Steps” is based on the augmented triad B, G, Eb, with passing chords in between. Wikipedia charts the usual ii-V-I sequence against the Coltrane version.

That progression soon became part of the jazz vocabulary.

Of course, nothing is totally new. One night as I was sitting at the bar at Bradley’s, the guy I was talking to said, “You know, the ‘Giant Steps’ are in the verse to ‘Till the Clouds Roll By.’” That song was written by Jerome Kern (lyrics by P.G. Wodehouse) in 1917 – the earliest days of the golden age of the American popular song.  I was skeptical. Coltrane’s revolutionary changes. Eventually I found the sheet music, and there they were.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Here’s the classic recording, with Coltrane’s solo transcribed and animated.

Bedtime – Construct or Cruelty

July 13, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

One summer evening when I was a teenager, I drove with Don Bane, a guitar player, from our WASP suburb of Pittsburgh to the projects in the Hill District. Don was the only other kid in Mt. Lebanon High who wanted to play jazz. We could often find a bass player and drummer to jam with, but they weren’t really into jazz. Don was, it was the only thing he was interested in, and he would find connections outside our small world. That’s how we wound up in the public housing apartment of a Black kid our age, a bass player named Mickey Bass.*

It was probably about 9p.m., maybe later, when we got there, and as Don and I walked to Mickey’s building, I was astonished to see so many kids still running around, playing  in the courtyard – kids as young as six or seven. Wasn’t it way past their bedtime?

I had led a sheltered life.

What reminded me of this moment was a piece in the FiveThirtyEight section “Science Question From a Toddler” (here).The questions are from kids; the answers are for grown-ups. 


“Why is it bedtime if it’s still light outside?” asked a 5-year old.

The headline phrase “social construct” is what drew me to read the piece, but Maggie Koerth-Baker’s answer rambles through biology, circadian rhythms,“bedtime resistance behaviors,” daylight and darkness, etc. but never uses the term “social construction.” The closest she gets is this:

In 2005, Jenni published a paper in the Journal of Sleep Research critiquing an earlier paper that tried to . . . define childhood insomnia as occurring when a 7-year-old can’t fall asleep by 8:45 p.m. In his critique, Jenni pointed out that this definition ignored the fact that average bedtimes varied widely from country to country. For instance, out of six countries whose data Jenni reviewed, three had bedtime norms that would make a perfectly average 7-year-old a candidate for medication.

If you Google “What bedtime,” it auto-completes to discussions of age-appropriate times (plus a couple of other frequently asked questions not relevant here).


These bedtimes are social norms, of course, and they vary not just from culture to culture but from family to family. Even within families bedtime norms are often the subject of negotiation. Because “bedtime” involves just a few people in an informal setting, it does not become institutionalized like other time norms like university schedules,  (e.g., MW 10:00 - 11:15). I don’t have my copy of The Social Construction of Reality at hand, but I think that Berger and Luckman use “lunchtime” as an example of how a mere agreement between two people – let’s meet for lunch at 1:00 – can become a stone-like reality as it intersects with more and more people and activities. 

What most of these discussion of bedtime miss is not that it is socially constructed and therefore subject to variation but that it is constructed at all. We just assume that every society or family has it. It’s the way we used to think about religion. Beliefs and practices may differ, but everybody has a religion except for a tiny handful of atheists, and they’re weird and don’t really count.

But what if an entire society has not constructed “bedtime”?  What if a culture sees bedtime not as a comforting and necessary construct but as something alien to their basic values?

Tim Parks, an Englishman married to an Italian and living in Verona, came to this realization when he attended a get-together for apartment owners in his condo building. The host’s four-year old son is running through the apartment, crashing into lamps, and raiding the refrigerator. Someone asks Parks about his own son, age two and a half.

    When I reply that Michele is in bed, others at the table show a mixture of awe and concern.
    “You have left him alone in bed at only two and a half?”
    I point out that it’s late for a little boy, and I am just about to go on to say that his bedtime is seven o’clock, when I remember that there is no word or expression to translate “bedtime” into Italian. [emphasis added]

Parks makes his living as a translator. If there were an Italian word for “bedtime,” he would know it. This absence of the word isn’t a failure of the Italian language; instead, it suggests a completely different set of ideas about children. Parks explains:

There is something coercive about the notion of a bedtime. It suggests that there comes a moment when parents actually force their little children to go to bed and will not take no for an answer, something unthinkable in these more indulgent climes. In explanation, I have to say that Michele “habitually goes to bed at seven o’clock,” which gives quite a different impression, and Francesca in particular marvels at what a wonderful little boy my Michele must be, hurrying off to his bed so early, not realizing that I had to pin the chap down for half an hour and more while I sang to him and told stories and said that Mummy would be back very soon, until finally he got more bored than I was and tired of all the crying he’d done and fell asleep. On more than one occasion I have heard such behavior described by Italians as cruelty. [from An Italian Education, 1995]
           
There may have been a bedtime for Bonzo, but not for Renzo

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* Mickey Bass went on to become a professional jazz bassist.  In the early 1970s, he was with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (maybe the Pittsburgh connection had something to with it). He has played with Sonny Rollins, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, and other jazz greats.

Flashback Friday — Plus Ça Change

July 7, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

 A new cohort of French 18-year olds took the baccalauréat last month, but the names at the top and bottom of the distribution are pretty much the same as last year.

In France, kids’ names are a pretty good indicator of how well they’ll do on le bac – the test that determines how good a university they can attend. As I blogged a year ago:

A little data ’bout Jacques and Diane
Two French kids taking the college entrance exam.
Over in France it’s known as
le bac
Diane often gets
très bien, not so much Jacques.

The baccalauréat exam taken by French students at the end of high school serves as qualification for university admissions and scholarships and for certain jobs. Those who pass at the highest level get très bien. The other levels are bièn, assez bièn, pass, and not pass. For some reason, the government publishes the results for each prénom. This year, 89 students named Jacques took the exam. Of these, 75 passed, but only 11 of them at the très bien level.


That was then. It’s also now. One of sociology’s crucial insights is that rates are remarkably stable even though the individuals who make up those rates change from year to year. The Dianes who took the bac in 2017 are not the Dianes who took it the year before, but their rate of très bien was again over 20%.  And as ever, the kids with Anglo names – Kevin, Jordan, Dylan, Anthony, Samantha, Melissa, Cindy, et al. – cluster at the low end. Less than one in twenty managed a très bien.

Baptiste Coulmont (here) created this graph of the 2017 results.

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)


As in previous years, the highest scoring names are female. Of the fourteen names with more than 20% among the très bien, Joseph is the only male.

The chart shows only the more popular names. For more on some of the rarer names – Guillemette, Quitterie, and others – see last year’s post (here).

UPDATE: July 9. M. Coulmont now has an interactive chart (here) with data for the years since 2012. 

Peter Berger — 1929 - 2017

June 30, 2017 
Posted by Jay Livingston

Flashback Friday

Peter Berger died earlier this week. The Times obit is here. His field was religion, but his two most widely read books were Invitation to Sociology (1963), which you can probably still find on the intro syllabus at some schools, and The Social Construction of Reality, co-written with Thomas Luckman (1966). The book quickly became a staple in theory courses, but soon the phrase and concept “social construction” broke through and crossed over into general use. Here is the Googl nGram chart of its appearance in books.


Five years ago, I blogged about Berger’s work for the tobacco industry and his more recent efforts on behalf of the soft-drink industry. That blog post is what I am flashing back to below. At about the same time, Andrew Gelman, who knew well of Berger’s work as a shill for Big Cig, also had this to say (here):

But what impresses me is that Berger is doing regular blogging at the age of 84, writing a long essay each week. That’s really amazing to me. Some of the blogging is a bit suspect, for example the bit where he claims that he personally could convert gays to heterosexual orientation (“A few stubborn individuals may resist the Berger conversion program. The majority will succumb”)—but, really, you gotta admire that he’s doing this. I hope I’m that active when (if) I reach my mid-80s. (As a nonsmoker, I should have a pretty good chance of reaching that point.)


July 26, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sociologist Peter Berger is hauling out the strategy he used when he hired himself out to Big Tobacco.  His role then in Tobacco’s fight against regulation and other anti-smoking measures wasn’t to defend smoking as virtuous or healthful.  Instead, he was paid to discredit anti-smoking sentiment and organizations.  Berger’s tactic for this purpose was basically name calling combined with accusations that even if true were irrelevant.

This time, in a longish (2400 word) article at The American Interest , he’s speaking up for the people who bring us sugar water.  Or to be scrupulously accurate, he’s trying to discredit the anti-obesity, anti-diabetes forces trying reduce the amount of the stuff that people drink.

As I said, it’s a page from the same playbook he used when he was working for the folks who bring us cigarettes. He refers to the “vehement passion” of the anti-smoking and anti-obesity campaigns, and he exaggerates their goals (while showing off his erudition):
I suggested that it was in an age-old tradition of the quest of immortality, first described in the ancient Mesopotamian Gilgamesh Epic.
He also accuses them or their supporters of venal motives.
Successful morally inspired movements typically ally themselves with powerful groups motivated by very hard material interests.
This from someone who was being paid by a multi-billion dollar industry to further their material interests. This irony is apparently lost on Berger, who, interestingly, does not even hint that he got penny from Tobacco. Maybe he forgot.

In going after the movement to improve public health, his number one target is Mayor Bloomberg and the proposed ban on the sale of huge-sized sugar-water drinks in theaters, restaurants, and other public places. 

Again, Berger is not arguing that obesity is good for you.  Instead, he dusts off the old “immortality” barb – equating a desire to reduce diabetes and other illnesses with the vain and impossible goal of immortality. Berger does not tell us how he managed to discover this immortality fantasy in the minds of others, a deep motivation the anti-obesity people are themselves are unaware of. He just makes it the title of his article  (“Mayor Bloomberg and the Quest of Immortality”) and asserts it a few times.  We have to take it on faith.

Berger makes the same arguments he used against anti-smoking campaigns:
  • The anti-obesity forces will be moralistic (Berger refers to them with religion-based words like crusaders, litany, preaching).  
  • They are elitist. Not only do they see their own lifestyle choices as virtuous, but they try to impose these on the working class. 
  • They ally themselves with people whose material interests are served by anti-obesity or with (shudder) bureaucrats. 
  • They are European, un-American.
I cannot say whether Bloomberg’s quasi-European lifestyle has anything to do with his idea of New York City as a quasi-European welfare state.*
Then there is the “slippery slope” argument – the scare tactic of exaggeration and false equivalency.
There is also an equivalent of the Saudi Arabian police force dedicated to “the promotion of virtue and the suppression of vice”—an army of therapists, coaches, educators, advice columnists, dieticians, and other moral entrepreneurs. To date (still) they mainly rely on persuasion rather than coercion. Wait a little. [Emphasis by Berger.]
Yes, you read that correctly.  If you can’t buy a 30-oz. cup of sugar-water and instead have to buy two 15-ounce cups, the Saudi police are just around the corner. 

I wonder what Berger and libertarians in general were saying back when the good-health forces were trying to get lead removed from gasoline and paint.  Could you pretty much do a find-and-replace for the current article, just as that article is a find-and-replace version of his tobacco work?**

UPDATE:  Baptiste Coulmont tweets a link to a 2006 article (here) by a French sociologist, Robert Castel, which uncannily echoes Berger’s arguments.  Castel uses the same vocabulary of religion in mocking the anti-smokers, and he attributes to them the same desire for immortality.
Le fumeur d’hier comme le fumeur d’aujourd’hui transgresse le seul sacré que nous soyons désormais capables de reconnaître, le culte du corps, de sa santé, de sa longévité, sur lequel s’est finalement rabattu le désir d’éternité[emphasis added]
He likens anti-smoking policies to Islamic authoritarianism:
ce mélange d’autoritarisme bien-pensant, de suffisance pseudo-savante et de bonne conscience sécuritaire qui caractérise souvent les ayatollahs de la santé. [emphasis added]
And he sees the same slippery slope.
L’interdit du tabac n’est pas la dernière des prohibitions que l’on nous prépare.
The major difference from Berger is that, as far as I know, Castel was not being paid by Gauloises.

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*By the way, if you’re looking for an example of paralipsis or apophasis, look no further than that sentence.

** For more on Berger and Tobacco, see Aaron Swartz’s article (here).  (HT: Andrew Gelman).  And yes, this is the same Peter Berger that sociologists of a certain age may remember as the author of that staple of Soc 101, Invitation to Sociology, and also as co-author of The Social Construction of Reality.